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Non-Nostalgia Review: Missy, Series 1

I promise this isn’t turning into a Doctor Who fan blog. Not yet, anyway.

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The latest crop from Big Finish’s lucrative “alliance” with the BBC and the resulting welding of the “official” continuity and Big Finish’s own corner of the Who universe is another mini-series starring everyone’s favorite frenemy, the Master…or rather Missy, with Michelle Gomez returning to voice the role. Missy, Series 1 takes place sometime before Missy’s botched judicial execution in “Extremis” and the subsequent efforts of the Doctor to single-handedly keep her imprisoned and redeem her. So, yes, we do get Missy in her full villainous glory all throughout.

In the first story, “A Spoonful of Mayhem”, an unhappy, upper middle-class family in Victorian London have their lives changed forever when the father hires a governess for his two adolescent children. The new governess becomes part of the family overnight, introducing the kids to a new, hidden world of magic and miracles and giving them the education of a lifetime. So, yes, it’s a lot like Mary Poppins; well, if Mary Poppins was a mass-murdering sociopath imprisoned on Earth…

Next is “Divorced, Beheaded, Regenerated”. Henry VIII is about to meet the woman who will become his sixth wife. Except she isn’t Katherine Parr. And Henry VIII isn’t really Henry VIII either, but the renegade Time Lord widely known as “Meddling Monk” who in this case isn’t a monk but is still meddling with human history. However, he’s about to learn he’s not the only one who is where and when he shouldn’t be. “Henry VIII’s” new royal bride-to-be is secretly the “artist formally known as the Master” and, as if that wasn’t enough for him to have to deal with, there are a pack of violent aliens hot on his trail…

The most gloriously odd pick out of the pack is undoubtedly “The Broken Clock”. It’s time for another episode of Dick Zodiac’s America’s Most Impossible Killers. This episode, New York City detective Joe Lynwood is investigating a string of murders that simply shouldn’t have logically occurred at all. Luckily to deal with this improbable case he does have an unexpected ally, a veteran homicide detective all the way from Scotland Yard, DI Missy Masters…

The last episode on the box set is probably my personal favorite, “The Belly of the Beast”. On a small, unnamed planet, slaves have been collected from various worlds and brought together to tunnel underground for a mysterious object at the behest of a ruthless tyrant named Missy. Stuck between Missy’s brutal troops and slavemasters and hostile monsters called the kobolds, three friends in one slave group strike out to join the fabled rebellion set on ending Missy’s reign of terror and misery once and for all. Unfortunately for them, their true circumstances might be even more horrific than they ever imagined…

The stories seem extremely disparate, but they actually do form a very loose arc that ends on a sequel hook. They are also united in that, if you listen to them in order (which I recommend), they slowly build up Missy as being as much of a ruthless villain as her predecessors as the Master. “A Spoonful of Mayhem” does present Missy as a sympathetic anti-hero with some dark edges but is clearly capable of empathy. However, by the time you get “The Belly of the Beast”, she gets up to some downright cruel and callous actions that make her schemes from the TV show look like vandalizing mailboxes in comparison.

To be honest, I am a bit biased because I have a soft spot in my heart for stories starring established villains. And the Master/Missy is one of my all-time favorites in that regard. That said, though, Michelle Gomez’s Missy and Big Finish is a match made in Heaven (well, Hell, honestly, but in a good way!). Big Finish has always cashed in on its license to be both darker and weirder than the TV series, allowing Gomez to take her flamboyant, grimly whimsical, fourth wall-winking interpretation of Missy/the Master to the next level. This is especially true for “The Broken Clock”, which threatens to kick all suspension of disbelief out the window, but by the end it does walk it back enough that it steers well clear of “the Doctor meeting the cast of EastEnders” levels. Overall, “The Broken Clock” as well as the mini-series as a whole is a bizarre but satisfying mix of the grim and the playful, much like Missy herself.

If I had any complaints, it’s that, as usual, the quality of the voice acting is a bit uneven, as is often the case with Big Finish. Also as much fun as it is to see Rufus Hound’s Meddling Monk bicker with Missy, I feel like there was a wasted opportunity in adding some not particularly interesting alien villains in the mix, instead of having it just be a story with two time travelers facing off against each other in a historical milieu much like the original Meddling Monk story.

Overall, though, the mini-series manages to capture the spirit of the character better than, dare I say it, the TV show itself. Add me to the list of people who are already eager for Series 2. Fans of Missy won’t be disappointed and it’s definitely recommended, even for those of you who are fans of the franchise but haven’t given Big Finish a shot before.

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Doctor Who – Spearhead from Space (1970)

spearheadfromspaceA Cambridge scientist named Liz Shaw is brought to UNIT headquarters where she meets Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who tries to enlist a skeptical Shaw to investigate a series of recent meteorite strikes that could be evidence of an alien excursion. UNIT scientists arrive at the scene of one of the meteorite landings, but the meteorite had already been taken by a local old man, Sam Seeley. Meanwhile the TARDIS materializes somewhere in Buckingham and the Doctor stumbles out and collapses in a new body. He’s taken to a nearby hospital where his physiology mystifies his doctor. Upon recovering his consciousness, the Doctor angrily demands his shoes. Suddenly, though, the Doctor is abducted by two eerily emotionless men dressed as physicians. Even confined to a wheelchair, the Doctor manages to escape, only to be accidentally shot by a UNIT soldier.

Although the gunshot only grazed the Doctor, he falls back into unconsciousness, which the baffled lower case-“d” doctor theorizes might be somehow self-induced. However, the Doctor recovers and frees himself from the hospital, stealing another doctor’s suit, hat, cape, and even car while he’s at it. The Doctor shows up at UNIT’s headquarters and asks to see his TARDIS. Lethbridge-Stewart is reluctant to trust him because of his new appearance (although the Doctor himself warms up to his new looks, especially how “flexible” his face is) and refuses to hand over the key to the TARDIS which he took from the Doctor while he was unconscious, but he gladly lets the Doctor butt into his and Liz’s investigation of the meteorites.

In a plastic doll factory, a suspicious designer, Ransome, investigates the back rooms of a plastics factory whose owner, Hibbert, had suddenly broken off a contract with him and acts oddly when confronted. He finds a closed-off area full of identical plastic men with guns attached to their hands called the Autons and barely escapes before getting picked up by UNIT soldiers. When the Doctor convinces Liz he needs some lab equipment from the TARDIS, Liz snatches the key from Lethbridge-Stewart while he’s interrogating Ransome. After Lethbridge-Stewart angrily barges in, Liz realizes she was tricked when the TARDIS starts to dematerialize…only to come to a stuttering stop.  “The temptation was too strong, my dear,” an abashed Doctor explains. “I couldn’t bear to be tied to one planet and one time.” The Doctor realizes that the Time Lords had deliberately sabotaged his TARDIS and left him stranded on Earth.

Sam comes clean to UNIT about taking and hiding away one of the meteorites. While an Auton comes close to snatching it, the Doctor and Liz get their hands on it. Although the Autons do succeed in assassinating Ransome, they do know the Autons are based in the plastics factory. When interrogated by Lethbridge-Stewart, Hibbert gives plausible explanations for almost everything, suggesting that Ransome made up the story because he was disgruntled by the factory switching its focus from dolls to store mannequins. Lethbridge-Stewart’s superior, General Scobie, is replaced by an Auton designed to resemble him exactly. When Scobie orders him to abandon the investigation into the meteorites, Lethbridge-Stewart suspects that Scobie was replaced by a Madame Tussaud-esque imposter. Still, the faux-General Scobie is able to use his authority to take the last meteorite held by UNIT.

The Doctor and Liz investigate the new mannequins produced by the plastics factory, which are all replicas of contemporary political figures, and work into the early modern hours on a weapon that could stop the Autons. They are too late, though. On the streets of cities across Britain, mannequins get up on their own and begin massacring anyone they come across and attacking military and communications outlets.

Still, the alien intelligence behind the Autons, the Nestene Consciousness, which has been assembled through the meteorites starts to see its plans to colonize the Earth unravel. Hibbert, their sole face to humanity, breaks free of his brainwashing and rebels, getting killed in the process. Liz and the Doctor invent a weapon, based on an electroconvulsive therapy machine, that can kill an Auton. When faux-General Scobie tries to have Lethbridge-Stewart arrested, the Doctor destroys it with the weapon freeing the original Scobie. While UNIT battles the Autons on the factory grounds, the Doctor and Liz go inside and confront the Nestene Consciousness, a pulsating, writhering mass of tentacles in a metal cylinder that serves as the hive mind of the Autons. Although it attacks and manages to overwhelm the Doctor, Liz deals it the killing blow. Back at UNIT headquarters, the Doctor agrees to work with UNIT in exchange for a lab and the resources he needs to get his TARDIS working again, all under the name of “Dr. John Smith”.

The Third Doctor’s First Words

“Shoes. Must find my shoes. Unhand me, Madame.”

Continuity Notes

The big thing is that this is the first appearance and the first adventure of the Third Doctor played by Jon Pertwee. It’s also the first time we learn that the Doctor, and by extension all Time Lords, have two hearts. (Don’t ask if Time Lords always have two hearts or if they just develop two hearts after their first regeneration. Or, for that matter, if all Gallifreyans are born that way or develop it as a side effect of becoming bona fide Time Lords. For the love of Rassilon, just don’t.)

I talked about it already when I covered War Games, but it’s worth repeating that this episode marks the biggest revamp in the show’s history, arguably even bigger than the show’s revival in 2005 or the introduction of a female Doctor in 2018. The focus of the show is no longer on the Doctor’s travels but on fighting aliens in contemporary Britain, the show is in color, and while the stories are still split across multiple episodes (in this case, Spearhead from Space is four episodes), you no longer get the eight or nine-episode long serials that you had in the First and Second Doctor eras.

There’s also actually an explanation here as to why the Earth gets invaded so much during the Third Doctor’s tenure (and presumably also from here on out): Earth has called attention to itself by sending out satellites and probes. Funnily enough, this exact sort of thing was a real concern for Stephen Hawking before his death.

Sign of the Times

It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but it is kind of striking that there’s nothing sinister or ironic about the Doctor and Liz using an electroshock machine of all things to stop the Autons.

Choice Quotes

Liz: “What are you ‘doctor’ of, by the way?”
The Doctor: “Practically everything.”

Comments

I really do love Spearhead from Space. It captures the essence of the franchise’s appeal in a way that’s just about perfect, with the right mix of campy, sci-fi, and horror. I mean, you do have the Third Doctor wrestling with some tentacles that almost look like papier-mâché, but I do think the scene where the mannequins start their rampage on a nondescript city street is genuinely pretty chilling. Their odd baby doll faces and eyeball-less eyes only add to the sublime creepiness. It certainly helps that this is arguably the first “Doctor Who” story that has a high on-screen body count.

It’s also a delightfully character-driven story, which honestly we haven’t seen much of so far. Liz Shaw is skeptical, matter of fact, and assertive, visibly angered by the small bit of sexism she gets from General Scobie and who develops a believable respect for the Doctor after a tense beginning. General Lethbridge-Stewart is appropriately stern but still has his own unique brand of warmth, which no doubt helped make him become one of the most beloved characters from the entire franchise. And the Third Doctor himself establishes himself as a courageous and caring person, but also one who is simultaneously more arrogant and selfish than he was in his last incarnation. Not just the characters but their relationships are established to a “t”.

Anyway, if you’re curious about the classic era of Who, there are worse jumping-on points than this epic story of the Doctor with the flexible face versus killer mannequins.

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